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Rare Book of the Month: July 2017

Onofrio Panvinio, De primatu Petri et Apostolicae Sedis potestate libri tres … contra Centuriarum auctores, 1591

The July 2017 rare book of the month is De primatu Petri et Apostolicae Sedis potestate libri tres … contra Centuriarum auctores (“Three Books on the Primacy of Peter and the Power of the Apostolic See … against the Authors of the Centuries”), by Onofrio Panvinio. This book, printed in Venice in 1591, aimed to counter the arguments of Protestants against papal primacy. Since the Reformation, Protestants had rejected the idea that the Roman pontiff had supreme episcopal jurisdiction as pastor and governor of the Universal Church.

The Italian church historian Onofrio Panvinio (1530-1568) was born in Verona. At the age of eleven he entered the Augustinian Order. He was sent to Naples and Rome to study theology. From his adolescence Panvinio, however, was captivated by history. At the age of nineteen he wrote a chronicle of the order; two years later he would transcribe the calendars of ancient Rome (the Fasti Capitolini), numerous fragments of which had been found in the Roman Forum. There followed research into the history of several noble Roman families, ancient Roman history, the history of the Popes and, from 1559 onward, the history of papal elections.

De primatu Petri was a digest of sources relating to the primacy of St Peter. It was originally to be dedicated to Pope Pius V in 1566. The manuscript remained stuck, however, with the ecclesiastical authorities. These were keen to ensure that special care was taken in approving a book of such high significance. Until his death in 1568, Panvinio was unable to get the manuscript back from Cardinal Marcantonio Colonna and was thus unable to send it to another Cardinal, Otto von Waldburg, who wanted to have it published. The commission charged in 1570-1572 with finding Catholic answers to the most influential Protestant church history (Ecclesiastica historia, known as the Magdeburg Centuries) may have considered publishing De primatu Petri, but, if so, the plan was aborted.

In De primatu Petri, Panvinio aimed to counter the arguments of the Centuriators of Magdeburg by collecting and ordering testimonies, starting from the Bible, which proved that the primacy was given to St Peter by Christ, that Peter exerted it during his lifetime (Bk I) and that all the succeeding popes used it as well (Bk II). Panvinio took pride in answering the Centuriators’ polemical and insulting language, and their mixture of truth and lies, with a factual and orderly presentation of testimonies from authors who wrote mainly before the time of Emperor Charlemagne (d. 814) (“conviciis et maledictis a quibus ego vehementer abhorreo”; preface to Bk I).

Bk I (the only one published) contained two chapters dealing with the arguments of the Magdeburg Centuries against the primacy and a very long chapter where he picked apart the entire treatise of Ulrich Velenus from 1520 (who claimed that Peter had never come to Rome), citing all of it and trying to refute it passage by passage (see M. Flacius et al., Ecclesiastica historia, 13 vols, Basel 1559-74, Centuria I, cols 524-30, “Argumenta contra primatum Petri”; U. Velenus, In hoc libello ... probatur Apostolum Petrum Romam non venisse, s.l. ca. 1520).

Popes Gregory XIII and Sixtus V in 1585 granted Paolo Panvinio (Onofrio’s brother) and Marco Antonio Lanfranchi the privilege to publish the work as soon as it had been examined by the Inquisition. It was held back by the Inquisitors for another four years and was finally printed in 1589. In the dedication of the first edition to Sixtus V, Cardinal Colonna (the head of the Congregation of the Index of Prohibited Books) did not mention the Inquisition at all: he simply stated that after Panvinio’s death his literary executioners had approached him because Panvinio, on his deathbed, had uttered the wish that this work should be published. The scholar and editor Latino Latini had made editorial revisions (checking, in particular, Panvinio’s references to church fathers), while some theologians including Cardinal Guglielmo Sirleto had been consulted to confirm that the book could indeed be published.

Panvinio’s De primatu Petri was reprinted in Venice in 1591 (which is the copy in the Middle Temple Library); in Rome in 1698, in Bibliotheca maxima pontificia, edited by J. T. de Rocaberti, and in Venice again in 1762, in Thesaurus theologicus, edited by F. A. Zaccaria.

On Panvinio see the biographical entry ‘Panvinio, Onofrio’, in Dizionario biografico degli italiani, lxxxi (Rome 2014), pp. 36-39, available online at  For a detailed summary of the contents of De primatu, see also J. L. Orella y Unzué, Respuestas católicas a las Centurias de Magdeburgo (1559-1588), Madrid 1976, pp. 284-95.

Stefan Bauer

Marie Curie Fellow

Lecturer in Early Modern History (from September 2017)

University of York

July 2017